The anatomy of a guitar is very interesting. While every component determines the sound, the quality of materials used is also an important factor. This is why all models, across all brands, sound drastically different from one another.
When it comes to fretboards, there are many different kinds of wood to choose from and two of the most common ones are maple and rosewood.
If you have ever wondered if one is better than the other and if so, then why, read on to find out more!
- What Is A Guitar Fretboard?
- What Is ‘Tonewood’?
- Maple Fretboard
- Rosewood Fretboard
- Other Options
- What To Look For In A Fretboard
- Caring For Your Fretboard
- Final Thoughts on Rosewood vs Maple
What Is A Guitar Fretboard?
The long strip of material (usually wood) that connects the body of a guitar to its headstock is known as the neck. The front of the neck is known as the fretboard. They house the frets that are made of metal. We can play different sounds by holding down different strings at different frets on the fretboard. They are also called ‘fingerboards’.
The fretboard of a guitar can vary in radius size and curvature depending on the shape and length of its neck. A standard guitar has 22 or 24 frets. Bass guitars have a larger fretboard to include additional notes. Classical guitars and a few models of 12-string guitars have a flat fretboard whereas others usually always have a degree of curvature to them.
Although not very common, some guitars have a ‘scalloped’ fretboard. In between the frets, the wood is scooped out to create a ‘U’-shape to allow better playability for techniques such as shredding.
Fretboards can be separate pieces of wood that sit on top of the neck or they can be the same wood as the neck. They are laminated and have markings on them. These indicate the different frets and make it easy for us to identify which note we are playing.
What Is ‘Tonewood’?
Different types of wood impart different tonal qualities to the sound of a guitar. These are known as ‘tonewood’. They have high levels of resonance and are easy to source. Some of the most common kinds of tonewood are rosewood, maple, and ebony.
As we will explore in the later sections, different kinds of tonewood give a guitar its tonality.
Maple is a reliable tonewood because it is dense and sturdy. They are lighter in color and often need satin or glossy finishing to protect the wood from humidity unless the wood is roasted.
Fretboards can be made from two different kinds of maple wood: hard and soft maple. It is common for maple fretboards to be carved out of the same piece of wood as the neck.
Maple fretboards are cream or beige. When roasted, they have a darker shade. This means that maple fretboards need more maintenance than other kinds of tonewood. However, the darkening of the fretboard over time is often something that guitar players consider a rite of passage, indicating the time they have spent playing their guitar.
Effect On Sound
The guitars tend to sound bright and precise. The notes sound clear on a maple fretboard and can be great if you enjoy playing solos or melody lines.
Guitars With Maple Fretboards
Most brands such as Ibanez, Fender, Cort, and Squier have models with maple fretboards. Some examples are the Fender American Original 50s Stratocaster, the Squier Classic Vibe 50s Stratocaster, Ibanez’s Wizard III RG370AHMZ, or RG Gio Series, PRS’ Limited Edition SE Custom, etc.
Famous Guitar Players
- Eric Clapton: The Fender Artist Series Eric Clapton Stratocaster is based on his guitar he named ‘Brownie’.
His love for Stratocasters, especially ones with maple fretboards is widely known.
- David Gilmour: Another guitar player that instantly comes to mind is David Gilmour. While the Fender Custom Shop David Gilmour Signature Strat is a more premium guitar, you can emulate his tone using a maple fretboard.
- Buddy Guy: While we associate a maple fretboard with genres such as blues, it is because the greats such as Buddy Guy paved the way for the modern blues sound.
Maple fretboards are found in a variety of price points. While beginner guitars such as Squier’s Affinity Series are affordable at $289.99 for a Telecaster, there are more premium models such as the Fender Brent Mason Telecaster at $2899.99.
When it comes to pricing, the fretboard is just one of the many factors that determine the cost. Other components such as the type of body and neck, pickups, fingerboards, etc collectively determine the cost of a particular guitar model.
Rosewood is a porous tonewood that doesn’t require a finishing because it is naturally oily. Their easy playability makes them popular with many brands that now produce many different models with rosewood fretboards. However, it is important to note that there are regulations in place to protect rosewood trees due to their widespread deforestation.
There are many different kinds of rosewood used for fretboards ranging from the premium Brazilian rosewood to African rosewood, found in Rickenbacker guitars. Other varieties include East Indian, Madagascar, Central American, and Bolivian rosewood. They vary in color and tonality.
In some instances, guitars may have a maple neck with a rosewood fretboard fitted on top.
These fretboards range from light shades of brown to a darker, almost chocolate color. They are darker than maple but lighter than ebony.
Effect On Sound
Rosewood is associated with rich and warm tones. Since they do not need a finishing, they feel very smooth to play and they are perfect for cutting out some of the excess high frequencies on higher registers.
Guitars With Rosewood Fretboards
Rosewood fretboards can be found on various models by brands such as Gibson, Epiphone, Yamaha, Ibanez, etc.
One of the most prolific guitars to have a rosewood fretboard is Gibson’s Les Paul.
Famous Guitar Players
- George Harrison: The Rickenbacker 360/12 was popularised after he played it on songs such as ‘I Can Call Your Name’.
- Stevie Ray Vaughan: The signature Fender SRV Stratocaster features a maple neck with a rosewood fingerboard, that he helped design.
- Pete Townshend: He was known for his many modified Gibson Les Paul models, most of which had rosewood fretboards. The Gibson Artist Series Les Paul Pete Townshend (Gold Top ‘76) model is an example.
Just like maple fretboards, rosewood too can vary in price. Many acoustic guitars have rosewood fretboards.
Apart from maple and rosewood, the other common tonewood found in many guitars is ebony. This is usually dark in color and harder than rosewood. Sonically, ebony is similar to maple and produces a crisp, bright sound.
Jackson, Gretsch, ESP LTD, and even Gibson are some of the brands that use ebony fretboards on some of their models.
What To Look For In A Fretboard
- Playability and Sound: No matter how good the reviews are, it is important to choose a fretboard that you feel comfortable playing. Your fingers should be able to navigate with ease. Keep in mind the kind of sound you want to play, for brighter tones pick a mahogany fretboard and rosewood if you require a warmer one.
- Budget: Since both kinds of tonewood are easy to find, don’t stretch yourself too thin when choosing one. Find the model which has better components and overall sound.
- Environmental Impact: While it is true that a lot of the tone comes from wood, don’t forget that not all wood is ethically sourced. Check where the brand is sourcing its wood from and that it is not endangered.
Caring For Your Fretboard
Since maple needs finishing, the fretboard can often start to show signs of wear and tear after a few years of use. The color may start to stain.
On the other hand, rosewood reacts badly to humid conditions and it is best to store your guitar with a dehumidifier when not in use.
No matter what the tonewood is, it is always good practice to wipe down the fretboard to remove dirt and debris from it after you have finished playing. Using a specially designed fretboard/lemon oil to clean the fretboard once in a while not only keeps the wood in a good condition but also prevents the strings from rusting prematurely. You can store a piece of cloth in your gig bag and wipe your guitar down every time you finish playing. A little cleaning goes a long way.
Final Thoughts on Rosewood vs Maple
The debate on which one is a better tonewood: rosewood or maple is quite senseless. This is because both have their advantages and disadvantages. Choose one that you feel comfortable playing and one that helps you achieve your ideal sound.
But remember to care for your guitar. Apart from cleaning it yourself, it is always good to take it to a luthier or a shop once in a while.